April 23, 2006

Meteor Shower

I wrote this piece last year for the monthly newsletter of my National Railway Historical Society chapter.

Union Station. Washington, D.C. June 3, 2005. Open knuckles rushed together. The draft gear did its best to cushion the rather substantial blow. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but think to myself just how flexible an Amtrak customer has to be these days – literally. That the holster misjudged his distance-to-coupling was but one of a handful of bumps along our way up the Northeast Corridor, our bumpy meteor flight over the seaboard.

Celebrating ten years of marriage seemed a fitting excuse to book Acela tickets to the Big Apple. Many months in advance and unbeknownst to my bride, I slipped onto the web and procured our secret seats. For many moons I had wanted to take this ride, and now I had my reason. Everything was set: We’d ride a regional from Richmond to Washington, then hop a new-fangled Acela for banked turns and breakfast on the fly. All this, and NYC before lunch. Fantastic.

No sooner had confirmation hit my inbox than I spotted a blurb in my morning paper: Acelas sidelined. Cracks in brakes. Curses! Cracks in my perfect plans, as well.

I regrouped. A kindly voice on the phone – kinder even than Julie – worked to keep my secret-anniversary-plans intact, rebooking us on another ride. Mr. Gunn’s #98 to the rescue – the Silver Meteor. It seemed a fitting remedy for my high-speed disappointment. We arrived early at Staples Mill to catch our comet from Miami, my wife still in the dark about our celebrative destination. The grand fa├žade dissolved, however, as we both stood agape before the screen. "#98. Silver Meteor. New York City. 3 hours late." I’m not certain, but I think the flashing letters were mocking me.

A kind soul behind thick plate glass received my grief without acrimony. Did I not receive his message at my home, warning of the delay? Alas, we had already left for Richmond. No matter. A no-name regional would get us to Penn Station by mid-afternoon. How about Business Class for free? I suppose. With no diner in the consist, my fancy anniversary breakfast suddenly dissolved from view, but at least we’d be in motion. Our meteor flamed out even before arrival.

I regrouped (again), now underway. A lone P40 made quick work of the RF&P, five cars in tow. In the bowels of D.C.’s Union Station, now mid-morning, I perched myself in the vestibule on the point as a crew pulled off the Genesis and tacked on an electric AEM-7. Lights off. Slam! (The aforementioned momentary jostle.) Lights on. And in short order, we were northbound again. We settled into our Business Class seating, complimentary soda in one hand, complimentary New York Times in the other.

Now, prior to Washington, our Amfleet space had been sparsely filled. My attention was caught only by a chatty lady behind me, sounding like Ethyl Merman, and a shaggy Vietnam vet who nervously paced the aisle. After Union Station, however, things began to fill up rapidly. By New Jersey, a box lunch later, it was standing room only. We returned from the lounge car to find a grumpy commuter had claimed our seats. An aged conductor declared over the P.A. more than once that “overbooking” was not a common problem on this train. I wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not.

My vehicles of choice had twice been taken out from under me, but even an unnamed regional commuter seemed to fly like the wind on the famed corridor to New York City. The pace of the line assaults the senses: Oncoming meets rock the cars like gangs in a scuffle. Tracks merge and diverge to and fro like cracks in tempered glass. Signals blink by, leaving little time to read their news. And at last – loaded to the gills with riders, most bumped off of canceled Acelas – the bright New England sun gave way to the dark bowels under the Big Apple. “Penn Station. New York City.” We had made it. We, and half of New England.

Two nights and two Broadway shows later, our anniversary celebration drew to a close. The fourteenth platform at Penn revealed another silvery Meteor poised in a southerly direction. We stowed our bags, took our seats, and settled in for our return flight home. A fresh start. This would be a better trip.

Remember: flexibility. No sooner had our movement arisen from underneath the Hudson than it become obvious that the air conditioner in our car had failed. It was muggy, and getting worse. The hosts desperately tried this and that over the next two hours, but to no avail. Our Viewliner was transformed into a Roman bath. Permission was mercifully granted to seek refuge in other places.

From our newfound seats in the lounge car, I nursed a bad habit of eavesdropping by listening to the conductors seated behind me. One was scanning his rulebook for a precise definition on service dogs. I too had noticed the rather rotund lady in our sauna-coach who had boarded holding her miniature canine like a purse. She didn’t look blind to me either. What to do? They pondered aloud.

I decided to leave that ethical quagmire to the professionals. I announced to my bride that I was gong to take a stroll to the rear of the train, see the sights from there. Moving rearward car to car, I entered a vestibule and suddenly realized that the exterior door was wide open! Something about the landscape rushing by at 100 mph gives a man pause. “The children!” flashed through my mind. I had leapfrogged over several loose kiddies on my hike rearward, so I quickly retrieved a conductor to remedy the situation. “These things pop open sometimes,” he remarked, as if that was intended to make me feel better.

From the rear of the train, I spent some time peering through hazy Amfleet glass, watching the slender corridor slip away from us at breathtaking speed, like the twisting tale of a kite. The catenary lines flashed before me like a hypnotist’s timepiece. I began thinking about disappointments, great and small, and about how life is full of them.

The sights along the corridor are not as vital as I imagined they would be. Everywhere, abandoned hulks of industrial plants. Overhead, aged Pennsylvania RR electrical scaffolding, peeling with paint. Station platforms in disrepair, major sections taped off in yellow. The only new buildings I see on the entire line are prisons. Perhaps a few condos. The whole scene has a kind of melancholy draped over - - Whoosh!
The passing of a northbound Amtrak movement – a combined 200 mph meet! – jolted me from my existential moment. Thumpety-Thump. A frog in a crossover turnout delivered a jolt to my vestibule. My hand reached for the wall in reflex. Flexibility, I thought.

Flexibility. Stay loose and enjoy the ride. On my flawless anniversary travel plans have rained meteor showers—cancelled trains, crowded cars, and crippled cooling. But don’t let the disappointments steal your joy. Look for the blessings amid the dissatisfaction. Five cars forward sits the best thing to ever have happened to your life.
An hour later, we sat down to a $45 dinner in the diner. Microwaved frozen chicken, paper plates, canned corn. But then again, I was with my beloved. And we were moving forward.

Flexibility.

April 20, 2006

Hiking

Here is a recent photo of Ella and me atop the Natural Chimneys in Mt. Solon, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. The view is west and the weather was perfect - clear, cool, and crisp. It has been a great delight to discover in my daughter a new hiking buddy. She absolutely loves riding high on my back, perched snuggly in our Shermani toddler pack. Her latest word is "duck," so on this hike, everything that moved and had breath along the trail was a duck. Having backpacked for almost twenty years, in recent years lugging as much as fifty pounds of supplies along the ups and downs of central Virginia, it is a delight to portage Ella's easy 28 pounds along with me down the trail. There is nothing quite like interactive gear of this sort. Hiking has a always been a respite for me: time to think, to breathe, to soak in the slowness and solemnity of the woods. I am enjoying sharing this gift with my daughter, hoping that she, too, will come to love the good creation all around us much as I do.

April 14, 2006

Goodbye



A meditation on John 19:38-42

I notice how poorly we do at nearly all goodbyes
How we hem, haw, when the leaving-time comes
How we skirt the fervent flames of our exits like
Misaligned shuttles bouncing off the atmosphere

We are not good with this moment of departure
We prefer the new warmth of a greeting embrace
But can we ever really offer our true welcome
If we are not willing also to offer our goodbye

And so some simply disappear from among us
They are afraid and they go; we afraid, they die
Either way, words are not said, truth not spoken
Our hearts, a bit more hardened, closed, as result

It seems most of your folks did not see this day
The ending of your god-filled life coming along
Most scattered, stumbled, leaving you all alone
With no space for goodbye, godspeed, godbless

Not all fled, however: our patron saints of dignity
Joseph, with his tomb; Nicodemus, his testimony
From where did they summon each brave goodbye
As they laid eternal life, now dead, in a sepulcher

This is the part that rips us asunder: the ending
They, we, cannot imagine life beyond the now
Could they seal off you who had opened them up
How could they walk beyond this tomb and pole

Your cross is nothing if not a hoist for a goodbye
The terminus for three years of your saying hello
Hello to God’s partnered people, lost in their fear
Hello to God’s kingdom, inbreaking among them

Hellos are done now; good friday is for good byes
To those few brave folk who remained to the end
In the airy giving up of your coming-down-spirit
They swear they heard a breathy earnest farewell

How did you get this out, your crucified goodbye
We need to know, we need your living assistance
We flee from gatherings, gurneys, gravesides, grief
No spirit in us like yours to say (y)our loving words

Perhaps at the start saying your strong father-hello
Meant at the end you could offer your son-goodbye
Teach us to believe in God who always makes a way
Teach us how to depart, to go on, to bury, to trust

Teach us to say goodbye,
secure in your Easter-hello

Crucixion at Barton Creek Mall

Here is a poignant image for Good Friday: James B. Janknegt's Crucifixion at Barton Creek Mall, 1985. I like the image of the Beloved of God being put to death in the midst of our daily grind, our commercial enterprises, our consumptions. I also like the sense that there is a kind of traffic jam as a result. Divine gridlock, perhaps. This tracks with Paul's sense of the scandelon in 1 Corinthians, the stumbling block of the crucifixion that is one half of the binary core we preach. Furthermore, I appreciate how some important symbols have been transformed by Janknegt, such as the high-pressure light of the pole now becoming an illuminating burst from heaven. I also appreciate the way contemporary neon signs--each with their own meaning--now illuminate what is happening on this pole. Terrific.

Awe

My seminary Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann has a book of his prayers compiled under the title Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth. This photo--one in a series I made on an outing at Smith Mt. Lake in central Virginia--immediately reminded me of his title. The inbreaking light; the bracketing tree: a fitting summary for Biblical, incarnational faith.

Reentry

Returning home is a bumpy, heated ride.
This tumultuous reentry is hard to manage.
Crossing over from one world to another.
Feet, back on the ground in reality, gravity.

It was patently not so, for about a week.
The free flotation of weightless koinonia.
The buoyant freedom of purposeful service.
The distraction of a stranger’s embodied story.

And then there is new landscape, the heavens.
A new outlook in a clear gaze. Such new stars!
No longer hazed over by thick layers of life.
Your world: now galaxies larger than before.

Eventually you notice your own globe again.
But how strangely different it looks, up here.
Colors, deeper. Vexations, smaller. Why must
I fly away, only then to see latent beauty here?

After nine orbits, the curve back home is near.
Back down to my reality, fantasy that it can be.
An earthly object circumnavigates only so long.
The pull of Monday morning exerts its force.

I wonder: Do the spacemen who so easily float
high above me in the heavens, for days distracted,
do they return to terra firma completely intact?
Does a piece of that heaven come home inside?

Maybe they walk around, a little lighter after all.
Maybe one never comes back down the same.

Written in 2005, on the plane ride home from a week of mission work in Mexico. During that week, the space shuttle was orbiting overhead.

April 13, 2006

Friday and Sunday

Once again the church stands at the doorway to the Tridiem, and once again we are met with the odd but familiar dialectical tension between cross and empty tomb, curse and blessing, Friday and Sunday. These two days, with a middle day of waiting and watching in between, are the time to slow down the Biblical narrative to such a pace that we are able to walk with its Central Character Christ through the twists and turns of redemptive history--the jagged details of Friday's death and the unspeakable newness of Sunday's raised-up life. We slow down the pace so that we are certain we have felt the full import of all three days--the suffering, the searching, and--mercifully--the salvation.

I am prone to imagine that Friday and Sunday of this week come together as if a pair of theological hooks, hooks on which the church hangs its experience of living in a world after the raised life of the Christ but before the finalized life of his people. We are in-between people, those of us who look to the New Testament for light and life. We are in-between Sundays, and as such we are in need of two hooks on which we might secure our experiences of living as flimsy covenant people in a stubbornly broken world. Friday's cross, Friday's pain, Friday's abandonment form a hook on which we hang our own abandonments--our isolating sin, leading us away from God and abandoning such great grace; those sins enacted upon us which erode our relationships and threaten spoilage to the baptismal waters that have washed us. Friday is the day for the lonely, the oppressed, the wounded, the sinner, the mourner, the abused, the bored (the anxious), the angry. It is the day we hang our terrors and trials on the hook of Jesus' terror and trial. For now, without Friday, our gospel is triumphalistic, presumptive, arrogant, and a dangerous veneer. Without Friday, we presume too much when we say "Christ is risen!" As it has been observed, only the marooned who know of their isolation can readily appreciate news from another place when it comes. The accustomed inhabitants are uninterested, unable to appreciate the significance. For now, on this island, there is no unmitigated joy: Everything is tinged by Friday.

But (and in the New Testament, one notes, the arguments always turn on this simple, contrasting conjunction), there has been inserted into our Friday world another day. The dread of Friday has now been met by the grace of Sunday. Easter morning has, by the undomesticated word of God, inserted itself into the depths of Friday. Note well that Sunday is not the fruit of evolution, or of natural process, or of natural anything. Sunday is foreign, unexpected, external to the broken down dreams of Friday's loss. It is precisely, supremely "the day the Lord has made." He has made it, for it did not exist on its own after Friday's apparent failure. Externally it comes, bringing with it a new hook on which to hang our more buoyant moments.

Sunday is for faith. Sunday is for love. Sunday is for hope. And these three nouns are, in light of Easter, no longer merely generic religious abstractions: They are now concrete nouns and verbs, forged in and known by the lived life (and death) and Jesus, crucified yet raised. We do not wonder anymore how to faith (Oh for a verb! Trust?), how to hope, how to love. We no longer grope around in the dark trying to imagine these most basic Biblical actions. We look to the bright light of Easter's new day and we see them born out and made possible by Jesus' Friday-Sunday flight. In him do we see such faith, hope, and love. Through him do we learn how to trust, imagine, and agape. Easter is our classroom.

On this Sunday we hang our dreams. On this Sunday we hang our forgiveness, even as we are forgiven. On this Sunday we hang our hopes for a future in which God's will and way will (has!) once again insert itself into our broken down realities. Sunday gives us a glimpse of a time when we will finally jettison Friday's conspicuous hook, when no longer will we need a space in which to place our deathly moments, a hook-cross on which to hang them. Granted, that time has not yet been fully born among us, but surely we feel the labor pains, surely the hoping-for-it is itself a grace.

As it has been announced: For now, there is no pure joy. Everything is tinged by our Fridays. But now, also, there is now no pure sorrow, for every cross-moment is tinged with hope.

Amazement

My daughter is for me a constant source of amazement and curiosity, as I frequently notice how her growth prompts my own. Her birth unleashed myriad undiscovered emotions within me and her frenetic development--daily bounding forward--is both dizzying and delightful. I am keenly aware that being a father is a matter both of biology and office. The former very much happens to you, requiring embarrassingly little effort on a man's part. The latter, not at all a given, is a thing inhabited and sustained by choice, by a daily act of the will, an agape-decision--or rather a long series of decisions--to better another and to sacrifice for another. Perhaps these twin realities capture both the grace and will of parenthood, the work of (co)creating and (co)sustaining life with and for the One who gives it in the first place. To abandon or blunt the will to be a father is to perilously assume a naivete about this developing little life's need for boundary and buoyancy. Yet to assume that a father creates worlds all alone is a belief too strident to account for the gift that a little life so clearly is. It is grace and will, then. A kind of a mysterious gift-and-calling, differentiated more in the gut than in the mind.

What is more clear to me is her beauty, both in the structure of her face and in the simplicity of her life. She is a delight to behold, but even more so to experience. There is an overabundance of humanity in her, suggesting that we are given by God more than we need than what is necessary simply for raw survival. I remember Peter Berger's suggestion that laughter is a subtle proof for the existence of God. That seems so, especially in its generous abundance and its unscripted timing, as one so often finds it in little children. That she does more now than simply exist: that is a gift. I suspect mothers bond with their child at the earliest contact between the skins, likely even before. I further suspect that fathers connect the moment it is apparent that there is more to a baby's existence than simply being biologically alive. I discovered a new relationship in my life precisely at that point, and there was both gift and calling.

April 12, 2006

Safe Shelter

I peered out the window, only to see someone’s lawn chair flying horizontally through the air. That was my first clue that foul weather had suddenly set in. Our tent shuddered and bellowed in the fierce winds. I could hear the machine gun tapping of the hard rain on our thin, fabric roof. Would we make it to the morning?

My father and I were camping in the Arkansas Ozarks when I was a teenager, only to be awakened suddenly by a fierce storm blowing in across the mountains. It came, it went, and we (and my tent) survived.

But the true weight of that glory was not felt until the next morning, when we awoke to discover that we were the minority. Our neighbor’s tent was wrapped around the nearest tree, his stuff everywhere. On the other side of us, a family had abandoned their now flooded canvas home and retreated to their van—the windows all fogged up from hours of crammed breathing. I think it was their lawn chair that had flown by my window at mach 1.

We stood their that morning—dad and me agape—never more grateful for dependable shelter. I felt like writing a letter of gratitude to the people at Eureka tents.

Safe shelter from the storms. Jesus said a wise man builds his house on rock, not sand, such that neither winds nor rains bring its demise. Our Book of Order lists seven “great ends” (purposes) of the church, and number two is “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.” Shelter: it is what we are about. Our koinonia together is a safe house wherein the storms on the outside are counteracted by the nurture and fellowship of Christ on the inside.

My pastor’s heart always breaks just a little whenever I hear of someone who is staying away from church because of storms in his or her life. How sad it is to me when church is assumed (promoted!) to be the place you go when you have it all together—the pinnacle of social success. In truth—and we all need to admit this together, on a regular basis—it is raining in all our lives, to one degree or another. Our first commonality is our plight: We are sinners in a sinful world.

But having met Jesus, having been brought into the shelter of his gracious love, we have new commonality: We are also children of God. And our church, God willing, is a shelter for all of us in need, built on a foundation more solid and durable than anything we ourselves could fashion. We are erected on God’s concrete Word.

In the dead of winter, in the heat of the summer, what a blessing it is to have such a lovely sanctuary as we do in which to gather for worship. And yet how much more of a blessing it is to be a part of a living, breathing, body of Christ—a strong, safe shelter for the children of God.

Hey, come back in out of the rain.

April 11, 2006

Greetings

Welcome to my new blog! While I have been tinkering with various websites for years, I have never taken up a blog of my own. Recently my dear friend and pastoral colleague Jonathan Carroll (http://www.ournewmagnificat.blogspot.com) inspired me to give a blog a try. I create this space with both trepidation and gladness, for I enjoy writing very much ... but I am never fully certain about what fruit should be shared with others and what should be left alone! While I have frequent occasions to write words and create sentences in my day to day work as a pastor, I have been challenging myself in recent years to do more writing for writing's sake--letters, poems, comments, and essays. Writing only on demand leaves one anemic in time. But to write simply for the joy and hope of expressing something--that is a gift, and I am grateful for the time and space wherein I can do just that. To that end, I hope this blog can be a place where I can share some of that kind of work with others. These words we are allowed to utilize and share are an astonishing gift. I trust this space, as well as all my spaces for shaping and sharing words, will be a fitting contribution in God's grand sphere of language. Grace and peace to you today.